On an Overgrown Pathé

[On an Overgrown Pathe]

For Whom the Bells Toiled

A Visit to the Belfer Audio Laboratory at Syracuse University

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: May, 2019

On March 15, 2019, I found myself in Syracuse, New York, where my daughter was to participate in a sporting competition. Today the fifth largest city in New York, Syracuse finds its roots in 18th century French fur trading posts that grew into larger settlements and coalesced over the first half of the 19th century. It has a long history as a transportation hub and as a center of manufacturing and chemical production. In addition, Syracuse is a university town, home, among others, to two outposts of the State University of New York and, most importantly for our purposes, the private Syracuse University, a research institution with enrollment exceeding 22,000; a major archive of more than 500,000 historical records, in formats ranging from around 20,000 cylinders up to DAT and beyond; and the nation's first facility purpose built for transfer and restoration of historial recordings. The archive is also a repository for documents including the papers of Golden Age Hollywood composers Franz Waxman and Miklós Rózsa.

[Edison Triumph Model D]

Please bear with me for what will seem a digression. I began collecting 78 RPM records as a student entering what then was known as "junior high school" in the early 1970s. In contrast to our own day, when a couple of mouse clicks are all anyone needs to tap into a wealth of information about old phonographs and records--including the, ahem, sage musings of a certain enthusiast right here on TNT Audio--back then, when print was the sole option, information about old records was fragmented and not easy to come by; we relied on scattered articles in general antiques and collector magazines like Hobbies and some publications barely above the level of one-man typewritten hobbyist newsletters, like Alan Koenigsberg's pioneering Antique Phonograph Monthly. Only later did I discover the Association for Recorded Sound Collections and its semi-annual Journal (in fairness, when I started collecting it had been in publication only a half-dozen years), but even that more substantial publication, in those pre-computer days, while bound like little softback books had all the production values of typewritten pages reproduced on a photocopier. By far the most substantial sources of information were two books detailing the general history of the phonograph, The Fabulous Phonograph by Roland Gelatt and From Tinfoil to Stereo by Oliver Read and Walter Welch. The former was more a popular volume; as one might expect from an author whose career was in music journalism, it was more lively and readable, but it also was considerably less detailed. The latter was, to be honest, a little dry; its authors, a founding editor of High Fidelity magazine partnering with an academic, were a bit didactic in style, but they included by far the deeper wealth of detail about early phonographs and records together with all manner of illustrations and even flow charts depicting early companies' issued formats, year by year.

So, I hear you ask, what does all this have to do with the Syracuse archive? Simply this: Walter L. Welch, the "academic" side of the authorial team responsible for From Tin Foil to Stereo, was an academic at Syracuse, and he was the founding father of the collection there. How he came to be is a story in itself, one in which, as in so many things musical, the United States benefitted from the European upheavals of the early-to-mid 20th century. Joseph and Max Bell were brothers who fled their native Russia and eventually came to New York City by way of an extended stay in Cuba, where they developed an interest in Spanish language and Caribbean music recordings. In the years just after World War II they opened a record store in Manhattan called The Music Box, and for a couple of decades it was something of a Mecca for record lovers worldwide. Anticipating today's CD-R-on-demand sellers, they would even make their own copies of otherwise unavailable records a customer wanted; over time, their stock came to include quite a mix of commercial pressings and copies they had made for themselves. When the Bell brothers retired and closed their store in 1963 (coincidentally, just about 10 years before I started collecting 78s), Walter Welch negotiated to purchase their stock--and with this core of around 150,000 recordings, the Syracuse collection was born. From there the collection has developed several different strains: commercial records are components of the Belfer Commercial Phonograph Disc collection, noncommercial records are held as the Bell Brothers Collection, and the Hispanic material constitutes the Bell Brothers Collection of Latin American and Caribbean Recordings.

I visited the archive at the invitation of Michele Combs, a family friend and Lead Archivist of the Special Collections Research Center. We met at the special collections reading room, and right from the start I could tell I was in the right place: there by the door, sitting atop a matching cylinder storage cabinet, was a fine example of the Edison Triumph cylinder phonograph, a Model D two minute-four minute machine with oak cygnet horn, a nicer example of the same machine I sold not too long ago to finance my purchase of a Model B with similar horn (my Model D had suffered application of a shiny coat of polyurethane by some prior owner and had a metal horn, and I prefer a machine with an end gate). Although I was unable to visit the stacks, which are generally not open to the public, Michele did very kindly arrange for me to spend some time with Audio Preservation Engineer James Meade touring the living heart of the university's audio collection, the Diane and Arthur Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive next door.

[Belfer signs]

The good folks at Syracuse are proud, and justly so, that the Belfer is/was the first purpose-built laboratory in the United States for preserving, playing, and transcribing historical recordings. Built in 1983, the facility was designed by award-winning acoustician Chips Davis (that's Chips with an "s," not to be confused with the Mannheim Steamroller guy). To be honest, the building isn't much to look at outside, basically a nondescript concrete box with a glass-enclosed poster box by the door. Inside is very much a different matter.

[Belfer signs]

To begin, the first thing to confront the visitor is an artifact even more eye-opening than the Edison Triumph in the reading room: a Stroh violin. I was going to say that outside collectors' circles no one today is familiar with this peculiar instrument, but a quick check of Wikipedia reveals it actually figured in a number of modern pop recordings and even in pop icon Shakira's 2010 world tour called "The Sun Comes Out." More recently, Lindsey Stirling has featured a modern version of a Stroh, or at least something made to look like one, in her YouTube video "Roundtable Rival."

Through some sort of unfortunate oversight (ahem!) I missed Shakira's extravaganza, however, and to my eye Lindsey Stirling's instrument looks suspiciously like an electric violin with a little purely decorative horn tacked on the bottom; for the benefit of those like me who may not have encountered the Stroh in its modern guises, then, suffice it to say that a Stroh violin is a modified string instrument that functions like a violin but mechanically amplifies its sound with a big diaphragm-equipped device and and focuses it through a horn mounted underneath. It has nothing in common with an old brand of cheap American beer, although I suppose part of the instrument could be constructed from recycled beer can metal. During the acoustic era, when recording involved focusing sound through a horn onto the diaphragm of a mechanical cutter, violins, and particularly violins in ensembles, registered very poorly; a Stroh addressed that problem by itself incorporating a horn, which the player could focus on the recording horn for greater acoustic power. A smaller horn led from the instrument to the player's ear, enabling the player to hear what he was playing.

[rare phonographs]

But I digress. Past the Belfer's Stroh, in its glass display case, the visitor next comes to a sizeable space with a large rectangle of folding tables, surrounded by a multitude of chairs. Jim lost no time explaining that it serves as the center's classroom, where aspiring audio engineers come to learn about recording technology. Down the far wall is an array of antique phonographs sufficient to induce Pavlovian drool from the most jaded of collectors. I don't know if the choice was deliberate, but they also, taken together, do a good job of tracing the rise and fall of the Edison company. Visible in the adjacent photo, the machines are, from left to right, an Edison C2 radio-phonograph combination, a last-gasp product released just before the company's demise in 1929, when it had finally conceded to the market and adopted electric recording and lateral modulation for its disc records (but the machine would still play the earlier vertical cut types--Edison was nothing if not stubborn!); a very early Edison Class M cylinder phonograph (note the chemical battery, the glass vessel shaped like a big vinegar bottle; this machine had an electric motor), among the first cylinder machines the company marketed in the late 19th century; a Victrola VV-IX table model with matching record storage cabinet; an Edison A- or B-450 Diamond Disc Phonograph, at the very top of the line when Edison introduced its line of disc records; an Edison Home cylinder phonograph, with the smaller Standard the bread-and-butter of the Edison line during the heyday of the cylinder record, with oak cygnet horn; an Edison Amberola I upright cylinder player, the company's first response to Victor's introduction of the Victrola inside horn machines; a disc music box (of manufacture unknown to me, as I'm not a box collector); a Regina Hexaphone (an early juke box type machine that offered the customer a choice between six cylinders); and a small reed organ of the sort known as a "melodeon." Suffice it to say, although the Victrola (but not its matching cabinet) and the Edison Home are fairly mainstream in the collector's world, the rest of these machines are at least uncommon, and most fall into the category of rara avis, if not "hen's tooth."

If the Belfer building is at the heart of the archive, adjacent to the classroom is what I think can safely be described as the center of its universe, the audio engineering studio. Those of us who have dabbled in audio long enough will recall that in 1982, the year of the Belfer's construction, the latest rage in studio design was the "live end-dead end," or "LEDE," concept, of which, as luck would have it, Chips Davis was a pioneer. No surprise, then that the studio is half lovely, rich honey wood and half acoustic deadening material reminiscent of the foam "grille cloth" inserts that often were fitted to speakers of that day. The space is not just a rectangular box; in the interests of avoiding standing waves, it incorporates complex geometry to avoid parallel surfaces wherever possible. A window in one wall looks out into the adjacent performance studio. At one time, some transfers were made by recording playback in that space, in the same manner as the Nimbus "Prima Voce" series; today, with advances in transfer for all formats, all transfers are electronic, and the space does service solely as a location for recording musicians in performance.

[The Belfer engineering studio]

[SP-15 turntable with custom styli]

The transfer studio brings us from the shrine to recording history seen in the classroom to a temple of electronic reproduction as it can be applied to records of every era. Two of the turntables in its source inventory brought a comforting sense of the familiar, if on a higher plane: Technics SP-15s like the one I'm currently spinning for my own collection, but each with a mind-boggling array of custom-sized styli that dwarfs my own little "basic for home use" set. At least one of the center's tables obviously is set up to play 16" disks, as a sizeable group of those sat on a cart to one side. Also present was a veritable army of professional grade open reel decks. Equipment for long-orphaned formats ranged from the antique to the cutting edge modern: at the one extreme, a Webster Chicago Model 81-1 wire recorder dating from around 1950 and, at the other, an Archeophone, the benchmark for modern cylinder playback.

For those not familiar with the format, wire recording was the first magnetic recording system, and it worked exactly as you'd expect from the name: like a tape recorder, but instead of plastic tape coated with magnetic particles the wire recorder relied on a spool of stainless steel wire .0036 inches (about .09 millimiter) in diameter. The typical specified recording speed was 24 inches (almost 61 cm) per second. Typically, either the head block or a guide system would endlessly cycle up and down to ensure even winding of the wire on its takeup reel. Wire recording had some advantages over tape, primarily that the recording medium was more rugged--enough so that it remained in use for aircraft flight recorders years after its disappearance as a consumer or studio audio format--and that the high spooling speed allowed for low hiss and, for its day, remarkably high fidelity. Among the format's downsides were that editing was difficult, a process of snipping out a segment of the wire with cutters and then tying the ends back together in a knot; the fine wire's tendency to cause rapid head wear; and a general inclination for the spooled wire to break loose into an impenetrable bird's nest tangle. Nonetheless, as the first consumer magnetic recording format, wire recorders sold reasonably well to the audio buff crowd, and Webster Chicago's were probably the most commercially successful such units.

The Archeophone is a French-made modern, electronic player for all types of cylinders. The machines are capable of rotational speeds across a sufficient range, and mandrels (the cylinder record equivalent of turntable platters) are available in a sufficient array of diameters and lengths, to handle any cylinder ever made. Unfortunately for the domestic collector of clyinders, Archeophones cost around $20,000 apiece, meaning as a practical matter they are almost exclusively in the province of institutions. The Belfer facility has two, although I saw only one out for active use in the studio.

[Webcor wire recorder and Archeophone]

What's more important than the types of equipment at the Belfer laboratory is the use to which it is put. In that regard, the archive has several ongoing projects devoted to copying and preserving records. Transfers are made at 24 bit, 96 kHz resolution for storage in a central computer facility. The archive makes images and metadata available online, but because of copyright issues much of the transferred music can be auditioned only onsite at the library or through SU’s internal network. Cylinders are an exception and can be accessed here.

One project, which doubtless keeps those Archeophones humming, is digitizing the archive's immense collection of cylinders, the third largest in private hands. Those transferred are selected on the basis of their research value, meaning the copies include a wide range of music and speech. Presently, about 2,000 cylinders, representing around 10% of the collection, have been transferred.

A particuarly unusual long-term project is transfer of the Bell Brothers Collection of Latin American and Caribbean Recordings, the archive's uniquely extensive collection of Spanish language Caribbean and Central and South American recordings, building on the Bell brothers' 15,000 such items the archive acquired upon its founding. Included are 78s from the 1940s and 45 and LPs from the early 1950s through the 1960s. They come from all over the Caribbean and Central and South America, and many are rare releases on small labels never distrubted outside their home countries or regions. To date, around 2,500 records are copied and can be viewed here.

I can only marvel at the technological sophistication and evident love of recordings and their history on display in the laboratory. Add to those admirable qualities a friendly, welcoming, knowledgeable staff, and you have a real asset to the world of historical recording preservation. My thanks to Michele Combs and James Meade for taking time to show me around, and my strongest recommendation to my TNT readers that if you find yourself passing through Syracuse, make time to visit the archive and take in its wonders yourself.

DISCLAIMER. TNT-Audio is a 100% independent magazine that neither accepts advertising from companies nor requires readers to register or pay for subscriptions. After publication of reviews, the authors do not retain samples other than on long-term loan for further evaluation or comparison with later-received gear. Hence, all contents are written free of any “editorial” or “advertising” influence, and all reviews in this publication, positive or negative, reflect the independent opinions of their respective authors. TNT-Audio will publish all manufacturer responses, subject to the reviewer's right to reply in turn.

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Copyright 2019 David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com